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There's a big mistrust between private and public universities: Atul Khosla

The founder and vice chancellor of Shoolini University on the varsity ranking 20th on the QS World University Rankings, plans to foray into online education, why competition from foreign institutes is great and how less money inspires innovation

Naandika Tripathi
Published: Jun 29, 2023 02:19:23 PM IST
Updated: Jun 29, 2023 03:33:41 PM IST

There's a big mistrust between private and public universities: Atul KhoslaAtul Khosla, founder and vice chancellor at Shoolini University

About 40 kilometres from Shimla, nestled in the foothills of the outer Himalayas and surrounded by Deodar forests, lies Shoolini University in the Solan district of Himachal Pradesh. The university has made it to the QS World University Rankings for the second successive year. The London-based Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) has ranked Shoolini University of Biotechnology and Management Sciences at the 20th spot in the country and in the 771–780 band worldwide. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US topped the list for the 12th consecutive year. Of the 45 Indian universities ranked this year, IIT-Bombay made a significant jump, climbing 23 positions to rank 149 globally this year. This is the first time in eight years that an Indian university has broken into the world’s top 150 universities. India is the seventh-most represented country globally, and the third in Asia after Japan and China.

Private universities like Shoolini are also making their way to global lists. In 2004, after retiring as the vice chancellor of one of the public universities in Himachal Pradesh, PK Khosla wanted to pursue his dream of building his own university to impart quality education. His son, Atul, asked him, "How much money do you have?" He proudly retorted: “Rs20 lakh.”

"I then asked him how much money will it take to set up the university… and my father said Rs80 crore. I called my mom and told her to keep her man in check," jokes Atul. But that's what entrepreneurs’ stories are made of, he adds. PK Khosla managed to gather funds from friends and relatives to set up the university—in 2005, in the heart of Solan Town.

The university offers undergraduate and doctoral degrees. It started with providing courses in biotechnology, and currently offers everything from nanotechnology and artificial intelligence to agriculture, the arts and yoga. Ninety percent of the 5,000 students are from Tier II and III towns. The university has 51 percent female students. Forty percent of all learners are first-generation students, and 30 percent are on scholarships. The university also has students from 34 countries, including Afghanistan, Syria, Singapore and Africa.

In a free-wheeling conversation with Forbes India, Atul Khosla, founder and vice chancellor at Shoolini University, talks about the challenges faced by private universities in India, why they still lag behind the public universities in terms of rankings, and their plans to set up an online university. Edited excerpts:

Q. Can you tell us about your plans to foray into online education?
We're building an online university, and our dream is to bring online education to the masses in India. We are trying to explore how we can offer courses at Rs15,000 per year compared to Rs100,000 [annually] that exist in the market today. It's not easy. It's a challenge, but it’s a dream that we have, and we are working towards it.

It will be a part of the university—an extension of the university, rather. It will be aligned with the UGC regulations for online education. The idea is to touch millions of lives. We believe that the belly of India needs to change if it is to grow. And for that, we need to give great education to a large number of students across the country.

Q. Many foreign universities are now coming to India, and the government is encouraging them to set up their base here. How do you cope with the competition?
I think it's a great thought, but a lot of my peers don't like it. From what I have seen and experienced, the ones who refrained from adapting to change are the ones that don't exist anymore. And the ones who either partner or transform themselves to become globally competitive have become large enterprises today. I would like to see myself in the second camp, not the first. I think competition is great. It keeps us on our toes. In fact, I would love to partner with a global university and build a great campus in India.

Also Read: Foreign university campuses in India: Is the move practical?

Q. As a private university, what challenges do you face while functioning in India?
There's a lot of mistrust between private universities and the public. But that's a natural thing in any industry that's going through an evolution. I think it happens in every industry. And then, in terms of funding, private universities are treated as second-class citizens. For instance, IITs will get Rs1,000 crore, and we only get Rs10 crore [in grant]. But on every research parameter, we are ahead of many of the IITs, especially the new ones. But sometimes I also believe that when you have less money, innovation happens. There's also a little bit of a regulatory overdrive, I would say. There are so many regulators in education, starting from the UGC to a state regulator and even a subject’s regulator. So, a lot of time goes into managing the regulator and ensuring that we are aligned with them. And many times, they're not convergent on the same thinking.

There is also a lack of quality talent in the industry, especially management talent. Suddenly, there's been a very rapid growth in universities. I think around 450 private universities have opened up over the last eight years. But there is no institution that delivers leadership for universities and institutions.

Q. Do you think these challenges are also the reasons why private universities are still lagging behind public universities in terms of ranking?
I think it's an evolution. If you look at the National Institutional Ranking Framework rankings for the last five years, you will see so many private universities there. Now, this is unbelievable, but we are at rank 20 in this year’s QS ranking list. We are way ahead of so many of the large public-sector universities. I know these are unbelievable thoughts. And sometimes people are cynical about it. The future of education is going to be different. Large institutions like the IITs need to change. I personally went to IIT-Kanpur, and I so wish it became more flexible and adaptive.

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